When Roger B Taney, the first Catholic in United States history to assume a Cabinet position, became attorney general in 1831, anti-Catholic bigotry was a prominent feature of American politics — manifest in the worry that “papists” could not really be loyal to their own country.
That bias has since faded, the heaviest blow against it coming when John F Kennedy, America’s first and so far only Catholic president, entered the White House in January 1961. And yet, in American politics, Catholics are still considered a novelty, especially when they rise to high government positions.
During last year’s presidential campaign season, many worried that Donald Trump would struggle with Catholic voters. He ended up winning them over — most significantly in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, where he needed them most.
And now Catholics will be prominent in Trump’s Cabinet and among his closest advisers.
These will include Steve Bannon, former chairman of Breitbart News, as senior counsellor and chief strategist; Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, as counsellor; Sean Spicer as White House press secretary and communications director; and Mike Flynn, a retired army general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as national security adviser. Of course, there’s also vice-President-elect Mike Pence, who has called himself a “born-again, evangelical Catholic”.
This is not even to count the prominent Catholics – Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich – who were key Trump allies throughout his campaign but who will not have formal roles in the new administration.
Whether their Catholicism has anything to do with it, many of these incoming officials are outsiders or even renegades. Many have heterodox political views, reflecting Trump’s own broad appeal to Republicans and disaffected Democrats – what some political theorists call “radical centrism”.
Most of them have made their mark outside electoral politics, often in business or the military. (This goes for other Trump appointments, especially Rex Tillerson, a Protestant, and retired general James Mattis, whose religion is unclear.) Andrew Puzder, the incoming labour secretary and a devout Catholic, has been chief executive of a restaurant group since 2000. Bannon was a naval officer, investment banker, film producer and an executive in business and media before joining Trump’s campaign.
Wilbur Ross, the billionaire nominated to run the commerce department, is an old-school corporate raider and turnaround specialist. John F Kelly, the Boston-born Irish Catholic who will become homeland security secretary, is a retired Marine Corps general who led the US Southern Command, the latest post in a military career of more than three decades.
What does this mean for the future of US politics? Given the experience of its members, the Trump administration is likely to be more open to creative thinking and new ideas than average politicians are. This is a good thing – though with greater potential rewards comes greater risk.
The business-minded pragmatism of men like Puzder, Ross and Tillerson might make them contemptuous (and rightfully so) of certain political conventions and the ossified Washington bureaucracies.
The military men, used to hierarchy, will be able to navigate these structures more easily. They are likely to serve as an anchor for the administration, weeding out ideas that might be too fanciful or risky, particularly in foreign policy. The renegades like Bannon and Conway will keep the critics off balance.
If it runs smoothly, this could prove to be a potent combination. You have the iconoclastic chief executive to come up with new ideas (Trump), the disciplined managers to refine and implement them (Kelly, Mattis), the business tycoons to sell them (Ross, Puzder, Tillerson), and the media mavens to protect the brand (Bannon, Conway, Spicer).
For years Americans have heard that their country needs to be run like a business. Soon it just might be.
Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s foreign correspondent